From 2009, the elapse of years is increasingly magnifying the figure of Robert Capa, considered to be the best war photographer ever, founder of Magnum Agency and a man who fought tooth and nail to preserve the photographers´ rights.
His exceptional reportage made to the refugees of Cerro Muriano on September 5, 1936, during their walking flight from the air raid by Francoist aircraft, across the village north exit, going ahead towards the Old Obejo Train Station and El Vacar, plodding in a real ordeal of 11 kilometers under a scorching sun during the afternoon of the aforermentioned day between around 15:00 h and 18:00 hours, with a temperature near 40º C and with a number of mothers and grandmothers being bound to take the babies in arms, is now even further enhanced,
80 years later, thanks to a photograph kindly sent to elrectanguloenlamano.blogspot.com by Frank Albrecht, one of the most important antiquariats in Germany, collector of original vintage copies and owner of Antiquariat Frank Albrecht in Schriesheim (Germany), an until now unknown image as to its authorship and location, made by Robert Capa with his Leica II (Model D) in a stretch of the old way Cerro Muriano-Obejo Train Station next to the Córdoba-Almorchón railway line, at roughly 3 km from Cerro Muriano village.
In my viewpoint, this is a superb photograph, made by Capa at point blank range from a slight right diagonal and at a distance of approximately 2 meters.
In this image we can see from left to right a woman clad in a rather worn peasant dress (full of stains and a burst seam visible from the waist down) featuring a small squares design and whose sleeves are rolled up, who is taking in her ams the youngest of her children, an approximately 1 year old little girl (who is wearing a small white garment with a set of buttons on her back), whose inner area of her knees she is grabbing with her right arm, while she holds her buttocks with her left hand to be able to keep an unstable balance, momentarily a bit reinforced by the right arm of the little girl, who is defensively clinging it to her mother´s neck the best she can.
Because of the getaway rush and the panic brought about by the explosion of the bombs inside the village, this woman has set off leaving Cerro Muriano with her clothes on her back, without even having any time to put a diaper on her exceedingly young daughter and fit her a pair of shoes.
The distressed countenance of the mother, who does fear for the life of her very young girl, is heartbreaking, and she is utterly focused on saving her little daughter as soon as possible, and Capa realizes it, getting the picture from within an incredibly short distance, whereas the mother is lost in fears, in such a way that she isn´t looking at the camera when Capa presses the shutter release button of his Leica II (Model D) with a Leitz Elmar 50 mm f/3.5 uncoated lens.
Two fingers of the little daughter can be seen hanging on the left of her buttocks, since the very young girl is already fairly tired and she hasn´t got stamina to raise her left arm and hand and clenching them onto her mother´s neck.
Capa is as always paying attention to the smallest details, taking fast decisions and capturing the most meaningful instants with a very quick shot and an amazing timing accuracy on shooting.
Five more people can be seen in the image:
- An around 9 years old boy, visible on far right of the picture, who is a son of the woman heading the group taking in arms her roughly 1 year old half-naked extremely young girl.
This boy is the nearest person to Capa when the photojournalist creates the image, but incredible as it may seem, he isn´t looking at the camera, but walking engrossed in thought and is captured unaware by the photojournalist.
He is wearing a long sleeved dark shirt, almost wholly open (surrounded on its top by a thick string with some knots in its centre), very tattered and lacking some buttons, and plenty of smudges are visible on the lower left half of the shirt, because at that time, working conditions in the countryside were wretched, with workdays between 12 and 14 hours from sunrise to sunset and minimal payments of sheer survival by affluent landowners possesing vast majority of the lands, along with a very shoddy diet, particularly regarding the absence of proteins.
A context in which besides, children usually worked in the countryside since they were six years old helping their families, and the lack of economical resources made that frequently (with the exception of Sundays) all the members of peasant families had to wear the same clothes and footwear every day (with the resulting accelerated spoiling of them), so mothers (who got married very young and often had their first child between 18 and 22), after the exhausting countryside chores, were bound to constantly wash the clothes, so the workday of the peasant women at this time was really of 16-17 hours and they finished frazzled, getting old from their early thirties.
- Just behind the approximately nine years old boy, appears an around 5 years old girl, who is his sister and is walking grabbing his brother´s right hand with her left one. She is wearing a short-sleeved dark vest.
And once again, in a stunning way, she isn´t looking at the camera, but advancing immersed in her thoughts and gazing out, in the same way as her elder brother, facing an uncertain future.
Capas´s shot is at the limit for not being detected, very fast, choosing diaphragm f/3.5 at full aperture and focusing on the mother being at the front and who is taking in arms her little daughter of roughly 1 year old, to turn her into the main character of the picture, leaving the background out of focus and making out in advance that the depth of field area of both the elder son and to less extent the middle age daughter who is grasping his borther´s hand, walking slightly behind him, is going to greatly coincide with her mother´s one.
- In the background and already out of focus, you can see another young mother wearing an entirely white dress who is taking in arms her very young son being approximately 1,5 years old with upper white colour attire, and whom the mother has had some time to hastily put him a diaper on and fitting him a pair of shoes.
This woman is holding his youngest son in a similar way to the woman leading the group, getting hold of the very young child in his right thigh with her left hand and grabbing his buttocks with her right hand, in an even more precarious equilibrium, with a risk of fall, for the fatigue has made that this around 1.5 year old child hasn´t the strength to hold onto his mother´s neck with any of his two arms and hands.
- Finally, in the middle far right area of the image, just behind the left shoulder and left ear of the around 9 years old boy walking before him (and who is the son of the young mother heading the group and taking her half-naked daughter grasped behind her knees and her buttocks), we can see the head and left shoulder of a similar age girl being 9 or 10 years old, walking in the background next to the other young mother taking in her arms his youngest son being around 1.5 years old wearing shoes.
This 9 or 10 years old girl is looking at the right of Capa and appears out of focus, in the same way as the woman with her youngest son whom she has been able to put a pair of shoes, who is marching abreast of her, being probably her elder daughter.
The picture is very interesting for different major reasons:
a) It proves for the nth time Capa´s gift for war photography, his impressive instinct, working speed and very quick taking of decisions when it came to tackling the selection of diaphragms and shutter speeds, the frames and above all, the compositively most interesting and meaningful elements, particularly the persons being innocent victims of war.
It´s a kind of image in which the image excellence from a technical viewpoint in terms of sharpness, contrast, direction and quality of light, etc, play second fiddle and what matters is to be in the right place at the adequate moment, to approach to the subject/s as much as possible, to choose the most defining instant to press the shutter release button of the camera going unnoticed and managing to get a good picture.
It is the dream of every full-fledged photojournalist: to become invisible just at the moment in which he is getting a good picture, and in this regard, Robert Capa has been without any doubt one of the foremost photographers in history, as is confirmed by this image, in the same way as in many others he made in Spain and scads of countries all over the world throughout his 22 years of career as a professional photojournalist until he stepped on a mine in Vietnam on May 25, 1954.
Capa is a true top-of-the line war photographer with a formidable natural flair to get pictures of war displaced people, who in order to create this photograph, approaches from the right and not in a perpendicular way, with great respect to the photographed persons, striving after not interfering with their march in so gruelling and dramatic circumstances, since they are human beings who have left behind their homes and all of their past.
Capa shoots almost at point blank range, from a distance of roughly two meters, surprising them without being detected at the moment in which he creates the image, something of extreme difficulty in a context like this, getting the picture from such a short range, taking advantage during his starting approach stage of the fact that the body of the approximately 9 years old boy nearest the camera, located on the right, prevents the mother with her around 1.5 years old youngest son wearing a pair of shoes and the boy walking by her (highly probably her elder son) from seeing him before getting the picture.
Additionally, Capa has also noticed, a few seconds before, that the woman leading the group is advancing hugely worried about the security of her half-naked roughly 1 year old daughter, so she is absorbed in her thoughts and isn´t looking at the camera, in the same way as the other mother being out of focus and taking in her arms her around 1.5 year old youngest son, dressed in a white garment and with a pair of shoes visible in the background, who is looking forward, and the boy in the background on the right with a rictus of fatigue and heat and who is looking at Capa´s right, without detecting him either.
© José Manuel Serrano Esparza
b) This extraordinary picture is a great example of the archetype of Leica photojournalistic image of thirties, forties and fifties, in which the focus isn´t 100% accurate (a side that has been thoroughly studied by Michael Auer and explained in many of his lectures), due to the great working speed of the photojournalists with the smallest 24 x 36 mm format mirrorless cameras in history: the different screw mount Leica rangefinder cameras with Leitz lenses also boasting very small size and exceedingly low weight in proportion with the cameras and which were used throughout 30s, 40s and 50s (the golden age of photojournalism) with remarkable prowess by photographers of the caliber of Ilse Bing, Erich Salomon, Walter Bosshard, Alexander Rodchenko, Arthur Rothstein, André Kertész, Lotte Jacobi, Otto Umbehr "Umbo", Izis, Harald Lechenperg, Dr. Paul Wolff, Kurt Hutton, Balkin, E.P.Hahn, Felix H. Mann, Wolfgang Weber, David Seymour "Chim", Tom McAvoy, Agustí Centelles, Alfred Eisenstaedt, Werner Bischof, George Rodger, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Douglas Duncan, Peter Stackpole, Willy Rudge, Ed van der Elsken, Ludwig Schricker, Walther Bensen, Dr. Otto Steinert, Martin Muncaksi, Yevgeni Khaldei, Peter Magubane and others.
c) Aside from fixing in time the inhabitants of Cerro Muriano whom he dignifies and makes live in the collective memory, already in the XXI Century, during their flight from the village on September 5, 1936 to escape from the bombs of the Francoist aviation, the image sums up
© José Manuel Serrano Esparza
the great operative symbiosis in Robert Capa´s hands between the Leica II (Model D) 35 mm rangefinder camera with interchangeable lenses created by Oskar Barnack (a masterpiece of precision, whose tiny dimensions, lack of swivelling mirror, silk rubberized horizontal travelling mechanical shutter which is a wonder of engineering and begets an almost imperceptible noise, were the work of the German great engineer and mechanical expert in Leitz Wetzlar, Germany)
© José Manuel Serrano Esparza
and the 4 elements in 3 groups modified Cooke triplet Leitz Elmar 50 mm f/3.5 non coated lens designed by Professor Max Berek, which yields an outstanding sharpness even at full aperture, though the vignetting appears inevitably on the corners in the picture made at f/3.5 by Capa, enhancing even more the characteristic and beautiful vintage aesthetics inherent to the photographs of this time made with very low sensitivity black and white chemical emulsions which included large quantities of silver halides.
On the other hand, this photograph has been vertically cropped in his left area (it can be seen the lack of vignetting on the upper left corner of the image, which has to exist in the original 24 x 36 mm format negative Eastman Kodak Nitrate Panchromatic cinematographic with aspect ratio 2:3 and sensitivity Weston 32, equivalent to approximately ISO 40), including more air on the left, since Csiki Weisz, the darkroom expert and great friend of Capa in Paris who developed his rolls of black and white 35 mm film, used to make copies in photographic paper trimming part of the original image until rendering it in a 4:3 proportion or even sometimes 4:5 similar to the 4 x 5 " large format negatives, which were the aspect ratios that better matched the layout and pages of the best illustrated magazines of the time, without forgetting the frequent fact that when it came to providing the most prestigious publications, they often sent — however unbelievable it may seem nowadays — the original negatives of the pictures, which were a lot of times reframed and subsequently edited with the aforementioned aspect ratios to make the reproductions on the magazines pages.
elrectanguloenlamano.blogspot.com wishes to express its gratitude to Antiquariat Frank Albrecht Schriesheim (Germany) for the confidence placed on us, along with his sensitivity and grasping of the prominent significance of Robert Capa in the History of Photography.
© Text and Indicated Photos: José Manuel Serrano Esparza. Inscribed in the Territorial Register of the Intellectual Property of Madrid.